By Eitan Arom/JNS.org
If any city needs a nonjudgmental space, it’s Jerusalem.
Both sides of Israel’s capital—the Muslim eastern half and the Jewish western half—have in common large numbers of socially conservative residents who look down on homosexuality.
“In the west, you have Orthodox Jews, and in the east you have Arabs—and the Arabs are so homophobic,” says Khaled Alqam, a gay Arab, while sitting under a heater on the patio of the Video Pub in Jerusalem. “They think if you’re gay, you’re a spy.”
That’s why Video—which has been Jerusalem’s only gay bar virtually since it opened four years ago—is such an important place for Alqam and a rotating cast of regulars, along with other locals and tourists who drop in.
By virtue of its status as a gay bar, the cubbyhole of a venue has a solid clientele of gay Arabs in an area where most bars serve a predominantly Jewish customer base.
“It’s one of the very few safe spaces in Jerusalem where you can come—Jew, Arab, gay, Christian, Muslim, Ethiopian, foreign worker, tourist, anyone—can come and be welcome,” says Aaron Lempert, the pub’s manager.
Video is a hole in the wall, reached through a low arch and a steel staircase from a quiet side street in downtown Jerusalem. A tiny barroom is wallpapered with pictures of celebrities, mostly from the 1980s, flanked by a low-ceiling dance floor and a covered patio. The gay motif is barely noticeable, except for a “Brokeback Mountain” film poster and a few small rainbow flags.
No pride flags hangs out front, which Lempert explains as “covering our own ass” in a city where stabbings have marred the gay pride parade twice in the last 11 years.
The most recent attack, on the 2015 parade, is the only time Lempert has felt truly afraid or targeted because of his sexual orientation since moving here in 2011. A linguistics student at Hebrew University from Myrtle Beach, S.C., the 27-year-old Lempert recalls passing drivers in his hometown throwing drinks at him while he stood outside of the local gay bars.
“Nothing even close to that has happened here—besides the attack,” he says.
Nonetheless, Jerusalem’s gay scene has known better days.
Lempert’s older regulars—those who were around during the 1990s—recall a time when Jerusalem had three gay bars and a renowned drag show. During that decade, legal strides for gay rights turned Tel Aviv into a beachside mecca and a top-10 worldwide gay destination, and a mass exodus drained Jerusalem of its LGBT population.
Since Video’s last competitor closed, it has opened seven nights a week as the only gay watering hole and dance floor in a city of nearly a million people—the capital of the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East.
The fact that it even exists, though, is encouraging for its patrons. Lempert notes how a number of haredi Jewish customers show up, as a sign that the bar may be helping to erode the religious stigma against gay life. But he’s realistic about how much Video can do.
“We’re one tiny little bar in a city of a million people,” he says. “We’re not singlehandedly saving the city from the extremists. We do what we can.”
Above all, the bar strives to be a home after dark for Jerusalem’s gay residents, and as such, it attracts a devoted cast of customers.
One of the regulars is Al Bel, a tall, gregarious man approaching his middle age who asks to be identified only by his DJ name, since a recent media interview had attracted unwanted attention.
After bursting through the bar’s heavy door in a Kramer-like entrance around 9:30 p.m. and hugging the bartender on duty, he takes a seat at the small bar.
Al Bel is both an admirer and an active participant in the sometimes carnival-like atmosphere of the pub’s dance parties. He hosts a line of parties called “Austrian Meatballs.”
“The first few times I came here I didn’t like it,” he says, rapidly draining a beer while seated at the bar.
After a reproachful look from the bartender, he adds in an overtone, “But then it became a second home. It was a slow start.”
And he means it—Al Bel describes the staff as unwaveringly friendly, unlike what he described as the corporate and uncaring attitude of bartenders at some gay Tel Aviv establishments. He now spends more nights at the bar than he cared to admit in an interview.
“This place is not only a bar to make money—it’s also the only gay bar in Jerusalem,” says the bartender, Tal Ninyo.
Al Bel makes the bar’s success his business, bringing in large crowds of tourists, attracted by Video’s monopoly on the local gay party scene. He also worries about the pub’s shifting demographics.
“Many more [straight] people are coming here just for the dancing,” he says. “They think it’s the coolest bar in Jerusalem, which sometimes to be honest is not so cool, because this is the only gay bar.”
After a moment and another glare from Ninyo, he concedes that the straight clientele is ultimately a positive development: “That’s what we need—people who think gay is cool,” he says.
It’s a situation he says he couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago. He also notes with a bit of puzzlement the bar’s regular clientele of practicing haredi men, whom he is convinced are closeted homosexuals.
“I bet they have a wife and 10 kids waiting at home,” he says. “But the fact that they come here—it’s interesting, that they feel comfortable here.”
A short time later, a swarthy bearded man wearing a beanie and a long black beard walks into the bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) Al Bel rises to shout, “The rabbi is here!”
The man, who asks not to be named, identified as haredi and straight. Nonetheless, he’s been coming to Video roughly twice a week since it opened, attracted by the friendly atmosphere and lively dance floor.
“I come here to drink beer—that’s not forbidden,” he says.
Asked if he approves of the gay community despite biblical and rabbinical prohibitions against homosexuality, he points skywards and says, “It’s not my problem—it’s His problem.”
Seated at a barstool out on the patio, Shafeek Sead, a Christian Arab resident of the Old City’s Armenian quarter, says he’s also attracted by the bar’s atmosphere—specifically by the dance floor, which comes alive every night and doesn’t require a cover charge.
“I come here just for the fun, not to do—you know,” he says, nodding towards the other patrons.
Quickly, he adds, “Never mind what the people are doing here.”
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